The announcement of the arrival of McLaren and its luxury sports cars was greeted as one of the clearest signals yet that Rotherham’s economic regeneration strategy is heading in the right direction. Peter Kay reports…

McLaren Automotive is opening a £50m Composites Technology Centre, joining the likes of Boeing and Rolls Royce on the Advanced Manufacturing Park at Waverley, and underlining the park’s reputation as a world class centre for advanced manufacturing, research and development.

Yet optimism for the economic future of the Rotherham area runs deeper.

Mixed use developments are springing up near the AMP; Rotherham is now a university town; a pioneering tram-train will create a fast link with Sheffield; the town centre is being reinvigorated; construction has begun on a large theme park resort; hundreds of new homes are being built…

The destructive waves from the industrial downturn of the late 1980s and early 1990s are now replaced by ripples of hope and confidence among business and council leaders.

So much so that Rotherham can claim to be Yorkshire’s fastest growing city economy and the UK’s tenth fastest growing economy.

“There is huge optimism around a number of projects,” says Andrew Denniff, chief executive of Barnsley and Rotherham Chamber of Commerce. “The AMP is the jewel in the crown, but other innovative plans are coming to fruition.”

It helps that Rotherham is at the geographical heart of the Sheffield City Region.

“I think we have to look to the bigger picture,” says Andrew. “It’s about the Sheffield City Region based around a major city and everything that goes on within the region, whether it’s the Advanced Manufacturing Park, the Doncaster-Sheffield Airport or developments in Barnsley town centre. There is significant investment around the region.”

And Rotherham has its fair share.

Muse Developments was chosen by Rotherham Council last August as its preferred partner for the £60m Forge Island project which includes a multi-screen cinema, food and drink outlets and a hotel. The town centre will have a cinema again.

The town centre masterplan also embraces a refurbished bus interchange and better use of the river and canal including new waterside homes.

After being squeezed for so long between Meadowhall on one side and Parkgate on the other, the town centre is looking beyond new retail and leisure.

Students and adult learners have started their first term at the £10.5m University Centre Rotherham on Doncaster Gate.

With access to degrees and higher-level qualifications, and accredited by Hull University and Sheffield Hallam University, UCR is operated by education and training provider RNN Group.

It is all part of a strategy set out by the Rotherham Together Partnership to improve the economic and social well-being of the borough.

Getting around will be quicker with the arrival of the tram-train, the first of its kind in the UK, between Rotherham and Sheffield. The journey between Parkgate and Sheffield Cathedral via Rotherham town centre will take only 27 minutes.

The much-delayed and vastly over budget pilot project – now costing more than £100m – sees vehicles using the freight route from Rotherham and then joining the Supertram network at Meadowhall South.

The under-estimation of the scale and complexity of the works – the trial scheme was announced in 2009 – is well documented.

But with Government funding, the tram-trains are set to run for two years with a view to permanent operation.

Meanwhile, a major new road between Sheffield and Rotherham – travelling under the Tinsley Viaduct to avoid congestion around the M1 – has already improved journeys for drivers. The Tinsley Link Road connects the ring road around Meadowhall with Sheffield Road in Templeborough.

Leisure and tourism are key strands of Rotherham’s regeneration strategy.

Work has begun on the Gulliver’s Valley family theme park resort on the 250 acre former Pithouse West colliery between Wales Bar and Aston – a site long earmarked for leisure development.

The resort will include an indoor water play zone, a climbing centre, nature trails, outdoor gyms and accommodation ranging from glamping and self-catering woodland lodges to the Lilliput Castle Hotel. It is due to open in spring 2020.

Joining existing Gulliver’s attractions in Matlock Bath, Warrington and Milton Keynes, the group says its new resort, near Rother Valley Country Park, will be its “most ambitious theme park to date”.

In the longer term, the future of Wentworth Woodhouse, Rotherham’s Grade I listed 365-room Georgian mansion and gardens, is looking brighter in the hands of a trust that has ambitious plans to restore the property as a visitor attraction, business centre and events space.

If one eye is on harnessing the glories of the past, the AMP, minutes from M1 junction 33 and the Sheffield Parkway, on the site of the former Orgreave coking works and opencast mine, encapsulates the future.

Rotherham may have a proud industrial heritage, but it is 21st century technology that is being developed on the AMP by world class businesses such as Boeing, Rolls Royce, McLaren Automotive, BAE Systems and Airbus.

The key anchor tenant since 2003 has been the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre.

Now the AMP has more than 100 industrial partners – from the global to small companies –and employs around 500 highly qualified researchers and engineers from around the world.

McLaren Automotive’s Composites Technology Centre will focus on the development and manufacture of advanced carbon fibre chassis high performance sports cars and supercars.

Around 45 McLaren employees are already working at the AMRC, and the company is expected to employ around 200 by the time of full production in n 2020.

The AMP Technology Centre is another part of the campus equation – designed to nurture small, medium and fast growing companies in the advanced engineering, manufacturing and environmental energy sectors.

And there is the promise of more to come at the AMP. Rotherham Council has granted permission to the landowner and developer, the Harworth Group, for another 35 acres for business and manufacturing.

The AMP is within the Sheffield City Region’s Enterprise Zone, which brings financial incentives for company relocations, including Business Rate Relief.

Powered by public and private sector partnerships, the whole area continues to be transformed.

Work is scheduled to start this year on a £50m retail, leisure and office project linking with the AMP and a growing residential community. Some 700 jobs are envisaged.

The development is by Waverley Square Ltd, a joint venture by Harworth and Dransfield Properties that covers more than 190,000 sq ft and covers offices, a foodstore and other shops, healthcare facilities, car park, restaurants, coffee shops, a gym and a landscaped piazza.

More than 700 homes have been built in the past four years and hundreds more are being developed. A community is taking root.

After recording 2.2% economic growth in the first quarter of this year, Rotherham’s Gross Value Added will continue to grow, according to the UK Powerhouse study produced by Irwin Mitchell and the Centre for Economics and Business Research. Employment may dip but is forecast to increase again,

Luxembourg-based United Caps, an international manufacturer of plastic caps and closures, were sufficiently convinced to commit €20m to its first UK manufacturing plant, in Dinnington.

“We chose Rotherham because of its central location along the M1, available technical skilled people and the reasonable cost of land in that area,” says CEO Benoit Henckes.

Initially, the company is taking 5,000 sq m, with an option to expand to 20,000. Twenty jobs will be created almost immediately.

Rotherham council leader Chris Read says: “The past year has been great for high value job creation in Rotherham with new companies such as McLaren Automotive and United Caps choosing to locate in the borough, joining the likes of Rolls-Royce, Boeing and others, whilst already-established firms have expanded.

“The coming 12 months will continue to bring infrastructure investments – with the University Centre already opening its doors, work starting on the Gulliver’s theme park in the south of the borough, investment in the new bus interchange, key housing developments and the UK’s first tram-train project.

“Our objective is to continue to create the right conditions for growth, generating the jobs that residents want.

“Rotherham is Yorkshire’s fastest growing city economy and the UK’s tenth fastest growing economy, and this gives confidence to businesses looking to invest in jobs, homes and developments here.”

It takes time to generate a fresh, more positive image, and there were other issues in Rotherham that needed addressing, of course.

Commissioners appointed by the Government in 2015 after the highlighting of serious failings across the authority in the aftermath of the child sexual exploitation scandal left Rotherham Council in September. All decision making is back with councillors.

Andrew Denniff says: “The biggest challenge is around people’s expectations and perceptions. Rotherham has not had the best press over the last ten years, but we are moving on without ignoring what has happened.

“It’s about perception. How do we profile Rotherham? We have to sell Rotherham to the wider world. That’s a job for all of us. We all have to play our part.

“We now have a City Region Mayor in Dan Jarvis and he has a huge challenge to get the four local authorities around the table to agree a devolution deal that will release a significant amount of money to invest in the region. Let’s show we can make it work.

“But notwithstanding how the devolution plans work out, and what may or may not happen with Brexit, there is a lot of optimism and enthusiasm in Rotherham.”